Stephen Leahy

BROOKLIN, Canada, Sep 8 2006 (IPS) — While the George W. Bush administration has so far failed in its bid to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, eight million acres of pristine Alaskan wilderness goes on sale to oil and gas companies Sep. 27.

Located west of the Prudhoe Bay’s oil fields, the eight million acres include Teshekpuk Lake and the surrounding wetlands, considered important habitat for caribou and water birds.

“This is the most important bird area in the entire circumpolar Arctic,” said Stan Senner, executive director of Audubon Alaska, an environmental group.

“We’re not opposed to oil and gas development, but it needs to stay out of critical areas like this,” Senner told IPS from Juneau, Alaska.

“The lands near Teshekpuk Lake are one of the most important ecological areas on the entire North Slope,” agreed Nicole Whittington-Evans, assistant regional director in Alaska of the Wilderness Society.

Nearly 400,000 acres of wetlands north and east of the lake have been protected as a wilderness area by previous U.S. administrations, including Ronald Reagan’s, Whittington-Evans said in an interview from Anchorage.

“This administration is all about leasing every piece of land above all else,” she said.

Alaska’s North Slope is essentially everything north of the Brooks Range mountains to the Arctic Ocean. This region contains the huge oil fields of Prudhoe Bay, with the natural splendour of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to the east and the lesser known 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve to the west.

The National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPRA) was created in 1923 to provide an emergency oil supply for the U.S. Navy, although little was known about its potential.

In 1980, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated the region held perhaps 2.1 billion barrels of oil and 8.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. In 2002, that estimate shot upwards to 9.3 billion and 59.7 trillion, respectively.

Oil and gas rights to three million acres in the NPRA went up for auction in 1999, another three million in 2002, and more than one million were sold in 2004.

The Sep. 27 auction of eight million acres includes about 373,000 acres north of Teshekpuk Lake, which is thought to have two billion barrels of technically recoverable oil, according to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

“This is a significant amount of oil that will help decrease our dependence on imported oil,” acting State Director Julia Dougan in a statement.

Acknowledging the area’s biological importance, the BLM has placed some restrictions, including large areas where nothing permanent can be built except pipelines.

Geese and other waterfowl use the Teshekpuk Lake area for nesting and moulting, two important activities that are easily disrupted by human activity, says Senner.

Moulting is when birds lose their feathers and are unable to fly for as long as six weeks and are vulnerable to predators.

“A plane or helicopter will send moulting geese into a panic,” he said. Just the sight of a human 500 metres or more away across the flat treeless tundra will send birds running, wasting energy and keeping them from feeding.

“I can’t think a waterfowl biologist who thinks you could drill for oil without disturbing them,” Senner added.

The long history of Alaska’s oil and gas industry has been far from smooth. Last March, there was a major leak at a British Petroleum pipeline that dumped up to one million litres of crude oil onto the frozen tundra near the Arctic Ocean. Only the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster was worse, where clean up efforts continue to this day with the state of Alaska seeking 92 million dollars more this summer from Exxon Mobil for bioremediation.

British Petroleum (BP) is now replacing 16 miles of pipeline and cut its oil production after widespread corrosion was found in its pipelines.

“Spills are a daily occurrence on the North Slope,” said Whittington-Evan. “Just before BP shut their pipeline down there was another spill.”

Between 1996 and 2004, 4,532 spills were documented including diesel fuel, hydraulic fluid and chemical spills, she said.

Nearly all of the 800-mile Alaska pipeline’s feeder lines are 30 years old, five years past their 25-year design lifespan.

“There’s a long list of problems with the oil and gas industry and a long list of broken promises,” she said. “One thing is clear: Oil and gas development does not mix with wilderness.”

The Iñupiat people live inside the NPRA and told Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to protect the region when he visited the North Slope for the first time in early September.

“The risks outweigh the benefits” if drilling interferes with subsistence hunting in the region and the lake area “should remain off limits,” Edward Itta, mayor of the 8,000-square-mile North Slope Borough in the heart of the region, was reported as saying.

Kempthorne has said the lease sale for the entire region will proceed because the United States will need the oil in the near future.

Alaska’s economy is based on the oil and gas industry and when leases are auctioned off by the federal government it receives 50 percent of the lease bid and annual rental revenues. Previous NPRA sales have brought the state more than a hundred million dollars.

The National Audubon Society and some other environmental groups are preparing a lawsuit to stop or delay the Sep. 27 sale.

Most of the three million acres leased in 1999 has not even been explored to see if there is oil and gas, says Senner. “Now they want to add millions more acres – what’s the rush?” he asked.


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